HOUSTON -- Mario Williams had his best game at the perfect time.
"This is our first big-stage game," Williams said. "Everybody was watching. We were the only game on. We kind of showed the world what we can do."
With its seventh of the season, Houston tied the franchise record for victories.
When Williams dragged down Jay Cutler for the third time, he jumped up and sashayed like a hula dancer. The dance seemed appropriate with the performance sure to help his push for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
"I know this kid is a tremendous football player," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "I'm just happy that good things keep coming his way."
Texans (7-7) fans yelled "overrated" when Williams was picked, but chanted his name Thursday as he posed Superman-like with his hands on his hips for several seconds after he took Cutler down for the second time.
"With everything that happened with the situation I was in last year and the criticism the owner and the coaches the whole organization had, this was big for us just to show what we could do and what we were capable of," he said.
Williams' performance made him Houston's career sack leader with 17½. He has had a sack in a team-record five consecutive games and has 13 for the season and nine in the last five games.
He has the second most sacks in the NFL behind Patrick Kerney (13½).
"They're getting their money's worth these days, aren't they," Cutler said when asked about Williams.
Williams sack of Cutler forced a fourth down and the Broncos went for it, but the pass fell short, giving Houston the ball.
"He's playing the way we expected him to play," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "But understand that you haven't seen the best of Mario yet. He's going to get even better."
Ron Dayne, who didn't start because of a sore ankle, scored on a 6-yard run on the ensuing drive to push Houston's lead to 17-6. The Texans all seemed amped up for the their first prime-time game since 2005 and their first game with the roof open this season.
The normally subdued Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner, celebrated his touchdown by striking the Heisman pose. He had 11 carries for 67 yards.
Dayne walked with a visible limp all week, but brushed off questions about how much pain he was in after the game.
"I just wanted to help the team win," he said. "If I wasn't hurting I'd have carried the whole load."
Denver (6-8) received its second successive big game from receiver Brandon Marshall, who finished with 11 receptions for 107 yards.
In the first regular-season meeting between Kubiak and Denver's Mike Shanahan, it was the protege who outdid his mentor. Kubiak was Shanahan's offensive coordinator for 11 seasons in Denver.
"The key thing is that the Texans got a big win tonight," Kubiak said.
Shanahan said he told Kubiak he did a "great job."
"You got your team ready to play," Shanahan said he told Kubiak. "You outplayed and outcoached us."
Andre Johnson had a 4-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter for his career-high seventh touchdown of the season. He finished with six receptions for 86 yards.
Williams third sack of Cutler forced the Broncos to punt and the Texans stretched the lead to 31-13 when Vonta Leach scored on a 1-yard run with 3:20 remaining.
Tony Scheffler caught a short pass from Cutler and leaped for a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter for Denver to make it 17-13. Scheffler was upended at the goal line by Houston cornerback Von Hutchins and fumbled as he came down.
Officials ruled Scheffler broke the plane of the goal line before Hutchins hit him, but Kubiak challenged the call. After review, the play stood.
Cutler was 27-for-39 for 254 yards with one touchdown and was sacked five times.
"A team like this beating us by 18 points, I mean it's uncalled for," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "It should never happen."
The Broncos advanced to the Houston 13 early in the second quarter, but a penalty and a pass for a loss of 5 yards forced third-and-20. Will Demps knocked Cutler's pass down in the end zone and Denver settled for a 41-yard field goal by Jason Elam that made it 7-3.
Sage Rosenfels put the Texans ahead early when he capped a 69-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Rosenfels, who started his second consecutive game in place of the injured Matt Schaub, was 16-for-27 for 200 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Elam had a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter.
- Texans linebacker Morlon Greenwood had 12 tackles.
- Shanahan said he was unsure of the extent of linebacker Ian Gold's knee injury.